This painting depicts a rakan (Chinese 'luohan', Sanskrit 'arhat'), one of the legendary disciples of the historical Buddha. Images of 'rakan', anthologized into sets of sixteen, eighteen or five hundred, became the focus of ritual observances in Chinese Buddhist temples from the late Tang period (618-900). 'Rakan' paintings were taken to Japan by monks returning from periods of study in China, and were copied and adapted by Japanese artists.
'Rakan' were commonly portrayed as gaunt, strange-featured old men commanding supernatural powers in remote outdoor settings. This example, probably one of a set of sixteen hanging scrolls, shows a fierce-looking rakan in a mass of swirling clouds with a dragon curled around him and a frightened child attendant hiding under his robes.
The scroll is finely painted with strong lines and great attention to detail. Cinnabar has been subtly applied to the faces to produce a sculptural, flesh-like effect, while the clouds are extremely softly painted. The brightly-coloured robes and skin of the two figures contrasts boldly with the sombre shades of the surrounding clouds, dragon and rocks. The intense and brooding image is enlivened by the gently comical expression of the terrified boy.
Asian Art Department, AGNSW, November 2005.